It's a perennial question in Nashville: Who's gonna fill their shoes? But with the focus more than ever on hunky young talent, the question these days is really: Who's gonna fill Florida Georgia Line's shoes?
If there's a good answer to that, you're sure to find it at the annual New Faces show at the Nashville Convention Center. Traditionally the climax of the Country Radio Seminar conference, this dinner concert with arena-ready production values showcases the five freshman acts that radio programmers have voted the most likely to succeed. It's an honor nearly as coveted as winning Best New Artist at the CMAs or ACMs. And it's also a chance to prove to the FM gatekeepers that they'll beat the sophomore jinx.
For 2014, four of the five performing honorees — Brett Eldredge, Tyler Farr, Charlie Worsham, and Thomas Rhett — were male, showing the continued difficulty women are having breaking through in the genre. The fifth, Cassadee Pope, further established that TV contest boosts remain the best bet for females trying to break the bro-country ceiling.
One of the acts, Worsham, got a vote of confidence from a veteran who showed up to duet on the hotshot singer/guitarist's "Mississippi in July" — Sheryl Crow, not just a Warner Nashville labelmate but also a sun-soaking Mississippian herself.
You could break these freshmen down into camps, with Worsham, Eldredge, and Pope on the tasteful side of the bro-country divide while Farr and Rhett brought up the self-avowedly redneck rear. Worsham is by far the most critically acclaimed of the five acts on display; the video that served as his introduction even included Tennessean country critic Peter Cooper making a cameo and reprising his locally famous line about how Worsham deserves to be one of the genre's next superstars.
But it was Farr who got the evening's sole standing ovation from the country radio folks. And he did it despite (or arguably, because of) pushing country's boundaries into metal/alt territory with a cover of a bone-crunching rock-radio favorite, Awolnation's "Sail."
But the chatter among the radio bigwigs in the men's room and at the bar outside the hall signaled strong support for two other songs. Eldredge let all but one member of his band leave the stage for a closing ballad, "One Mississippi," that left the audience astonished at the heretofore unrealized soulfulness of his chops. (Yes, the state of Mississippi went proudly represented by two songs at the Friday night show.)
And Pope, hardly a slouch in the vocal department herself, won programmers over again with "I Wish I Could Break Your Heart." "That's the followup to [top 10 hit] 'Wasting All These Tears'," gushed one after her set. But Pope also took time to play a ballad that almost certainly won't be a single, but that she described as her most personal song, "11," about her reaction at that age to her parents' divorce.
If this were a competition, there'd be no runaway winner. But after a conference that focused largely on country's surprising appeal in 2014 to millennials, radio's VIPs left with considerable assurance that the material is there for youth in their respective markets to be well-served.